Date: 10 Nov 2010

Ageing and maximal physical performance

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Elite master athletes with long-term devotion to physical training offer an economical means of investigating the effects of ageing and habitual exercise on maximal physical performance. Ideally, individuals with optimised living habits throughout their lives could serve as a human model of ‘primary’ or ‘inherent’ ageing, where age-related changes are not confounded by sedentary life-style and associated chronic diseases. A limitation of this approach is the selection bias as those with inherently high physical capacity and good health participate in competitive sports. The age-related decrements remain obvious, but the record performances of master athletes competing in running and jumping events are preserved at an extraordinary high level until old age. Similarly, underlying capacities such as muscle strength, power and endurance remain far above the age norms, thus providing superior functional reserves for activities of daily living. Nevertheless, even the best records may overestimate the age decrements. It is obvious that the older champions have never trained and performed as well as the current younger athletes, and that the performance of individual athletes retaining or increasing their training volume and intensity show smaller decrements over the years. The plasticity of individual development is preserved in later life thus making it possible, at least for some time, to modify the age-associated decline in the different aspects of maximal physical performance.